Dive sites: MV Aster

Tripod mast
Tripod mast

Tony has been alternately ragging and begging Grant for the last long while, wanting to dive the MV Aster in Hout Bay. He finally got his wish, along with me, Goot and Cecil, one magnificent weekend in early July. The sea was flat, the air was warm, and after an unseasonal week of southeasterly winds, the Atlantic was fairly clean.

The Sentinel outside Hout Bay harbour
The Sentinel outside Hout Bay harbour

The Aster is just outside Hout Bay harbour, fairly sheltered in the mouth of the bay. It was deliberately scuttled – by divers, for divers – in 1997. The ship was cleaned, the interior was stripped of wires and furnishings, and all doors and hatches were removed. Openings were cut into the hull of the ship, and it’s probably one of the most friendly wrecks to penetrate in Cape Town. When we dived it, Peter Southwood was venturing inside to check that his schemes of arrangement on the wikivoyage site are correct and current.

Peter Southwood's line stretches beneath a hatch in the deck
Peter Southwood’s line stretches beneath a hatch in the deck

The top of the wreck is at a depth of about 20 metres, and if you bury yourself in the sand under the ship you might get 28 metres or so. There’s a large tripod mast that extends to within 10-12 metres of the surface, and ascending next to this is a treat. The ship stands upright, alone on a sandy bottom, and the wreck of the Katsu Maru lies about 30 metres away over the sand. The Aster was a crayfishing vessel, and is about 36 metres long. There are gangways, ladders, winches, lots of superstructure, and even a railing at the bow if you want to play Titanic there (Tony did).

Reminds one of a scene from Titanic?
Reminds one of a scene from Titanic?

The Atlantic is nutrient-rich (effluent from the Disa River in Hout Bay probably also helps here) and the wreck is quite heavily encrusted. Tony observed that even though the Cedar Pride, a wreck he dived when living in Jordan, has been underwater longer than the Aster, she’s far less covered with marine life.

Hagfish on deck
Hagfish on deck

I found a hagfish sleeping on deck below the mast, and we were delighted by the many tiny West coast rock lobsters all over the wreck (some large ones too). We found a couple the size of shrimps – adorable (to my mind)! There’s a lot of invertebrate life to enjoy, but I didn’t find any nudibranchs despite looking. Many of the ones found on this wreck are of the “beige with brown spots” variety and having never seen one in real life, it’s going to take a while to train my eyes to find them!

Tiny West coast rock lobster in a mussel shell
Tiny West coast rock lobster in a mussel shell

The marine life is lovely, and can absorb one for ages, but our chief enjoyment was in being on a large, intact wreck with lots of interesting shapes to look at. The tripod mast is spectacular, and there are winches, railings and cut-out compartments with windows that can all be enjoyed by a recreational diver not trained in wreck penetration. There are gangways along the side of the ship which are open on one side, and one or two areas on the deck that are overhead environments but have one whole wall missing, so a wreck penetration could be done in stages.

We dived on 32% nitrox, and I had a fifteen litre cylinder (sheer chance!). When we started ascending I still had 25 minutes of bottom time available, having spent the bulk of the dive at around 20 metres or so, and probably could have reached my NDL on the air remaining in my cylinder. Without buddies though – no thanks! Most of the dive we were accompanied by seals, and they were playing on the surface as we climbed back into the boat.

Tony ascending with his camera
Tony ascending with his camera

We’ve also done a night dive on this wreck – a spooky but thrilling experience.

Dive date: 10 July 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 27.1 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 37 minutes

The BlueFlash boat coming to fetch us after the dive
The BlueFlash boat coming to fetch us after the dive

Dive sites: Windmill Beach

A wedding at Windmill, with divers emerging (James Bond-like) from the sea in the background
A wedding at Windmill, with divers emerging (James Bond-like) from the sea in the background

It’s actually ridiculous that I haven’t written anything about Windmill Beach yet for the blog. It’s probably one of the three most popular shore entry sites on the western side of False Bay, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The beach is also a popular wedding venue – take care not to spoil the photos as you tramp past in your scuba gear!

Blue gas flame nudibranch
Blue gas flame nudibranch

Right next to Boulders Beach, Windmill shares the same type of topography: large, rounded boulders sheltering small inlets. On a calm day with no large swell, it’s paradise. (When there is a big swell, it’s a washing machine and not worth the walk down to the beach.) A huge variety of life colonises the granite boulders around the beach, and the patient observer will find other interesting creatures on the coarse, sandy bottom between the rocks.

The entrance to the beach, seen from the parking area
The entrance to the beach, seen from the parking area

Parking is at the end of Links Crescent, so-called because it runs behind the golf course in Simon’s Town. There’s often a man in a penguin suit standing on the corner of Bellevue Road, which is where you must turn left off the main road. Links Crescent is the first road to your right after the golf course. On weekends the site teems with divers, but during the week it’s advisable to organise yourself a car guard (Happy Valley Homeless Shelter can often oblige). The parking is right next to the golf course – be warned! There are public loos on the way down to the beach, but optimistically the most they can be said to provide in terms of amenities is a modicum of privacy. The well-maintained loos at Long Beach have spoiled us in this regard!

Common feather star
Common feather star

The two coves are very sheltered. The northernmost (left hand) one is very shallow and slopes very gently; the eastern (right hand) cove is the more popular entry point, and is ideal for skills training on the sandy bottom, as it is very protected and one can quickly get 1.5 to 2 metres of depth. There is plenty to see on the rocks around the edge of the cove, and in adverse conditions an entire dive could be conducted without leaving the protection of the rocks. At least one very large octopus lives in the shallows on the right hand side of the cove.

A red sea star... count the legs!
A red sea star… count the legs!

The maximum depth you’ll find at Windmill is about 8 metres – getting deeper requires quite a swim offshore. I think it involves more than a little luck as well as some navigation skils, but it’s possible to enter at the eastern cove, swim out and around the rocks, and exit at the northern cove. There is a narrow gap between the rocks (shortcut into the northern cove) that is terrible when there’s a swell – the first time I dived Windmill, with Fritz (just after I started diving) we got washed through it at a precipitous speed. If you skip the gap, knowing when to turn west and find the seaward entrance of the north cove is also quite an art, and a “surface to look around” may be required.

Blue gas flame nudibranch
Blue gas flame nudibranch

All that said, Windmill is an exceptionally attractive dive site. There are several passages to swim through, and the southern right whales that visit False Bay every year seem to like this spot. I have heard more than one story of divers encountering a jubilant whale in the shallow (for a whale) water. If you are one of the lucky ones who does, remember that these whales are very, very large in comparison to you, and an accidental sideswipe with its tail could well catapault you into next week.

Box sea jellies at Windmill Beach
Box sea jellies at Windmill Beach
A Cape rock crab in the kelp
A Cape rock crab in the kelp

When we dived there recently I found a white seacatfish, but wasn’t fast enough to photograph him as he disappeared into a crack in the rocks. There are lots of klipfish, gorgeous nudibranchs, and a wealth of other invertebrate life. You won’t find a single abalone (but lots of shells) – I think they’ve been poached out. The place is crawling with alikreukel. Fortunately at Photographer’s Reef, a 400 metre swim directly out into the bay from Windmill, there is a reasonably large and healthy population. Like A Frame, we saw many false plum anemones, and the Cape rock crab population at Windmill seems particularly healthy. If you want to see kelp forests, the ones at Windmill are particularly alluring, sloping gently upwards with a vivid scattering of urchins and anemones on the rocks beneath.

Octopus in the shallows at Windmill
Octopus in the shallows at Windmill

Dive date: 15 October 2011

Air temperature: 19 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 6.6 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 40 minutes

Gregarious fanworms next to a teat sponge
Gregarious fanworms next to a teat sponge

Dive sites: MFV Orotava

View across the MFV Orotava
View across the MFV Orotava

The MFV Orotava was part of the I&J fishing fleet, and was scuttled in Smitswinkel Bay in 1983. She lies alongside the SAS Transvaal, and within a few hundred metres of the SAS Good Hope, the MV Rockeater, and the MFV Princess Elizabeth. She is a steel trawler, 50 metres long and just over 9 metres wide. It’s possible to see the entire wreck in a single dive; she rests on the sand at 34 metres, leaning at a slight angle, and the top of her superstructure is at about 23 metres.

We dived this wreck two weekends in a row. The first time we had very good visibility, and to me the ship looked as though it was festooned with flowers. There are lots of steel pipes and other bits sticking up, with arches and door frames and other framing devices that make for wonderful photographic opportunities. The wreck is overgrown with feather stars, sea fans, soft corals, and other invertebrate life.

A masked crab evades my flash on the sand
A masked crab evades my flash on the sand
Walking anemone
Walking anemone

Most notable to me was the presence of multiple frilled nudibranchs. I saw these for the first time on the MV Rockeater, also in Smitswinkel Bay, but the profusion of these beautiful little creatures on the Orotava has to be seen to be believed. I probably photographed 20 unique specimens on each dive, whilst swimming over several others (with regret).

A gathering of frilled nudibranchs
A gathering of frilled nudibranchs

The interior of the wreck is small, tight and not really suitable for penetration. The next two photos are horrible and have no artistic merit whatsoever (even by my standards), but they are of a hole in the deck. There are vertical steel plates visibile inside the hole that were moving several feet back and forth with each wash of the surge – you can see them in two distinct positions in the pictures. Take care.

Dive date: 27 August 2011

Air temperature: 17 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 30.3 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 33 minutes

Close up of the bow railings
Close up of the bow railings

We returned to the MFV Orotava the following week to look for a GoPro camera lost by one of the other divers on the boat the previous week. No luck finding it, unfortunately!

Tiny basket star on a sea fan
Tiny basket star on a sea fan

On our second visit to the wreck, Tony was below me on the sand with a student doing skills for a Deep Specialty course. I hung about near the top of the hull, trying to take shelter from the surge, which was particularly violent that day. Next to me, on some small sea fans, were two baby basket stars. This is the first time I’ve seen them in False Bay (I think they are found at several of the deeper reefs towards the southern end of the bay, such as Rocky Bank) – we usually see them on deep Atlantic dives such as on Klein Tafelberg Reef.

Baby basket star
Baby basket star

I thought the Orotava was a very pretty wreck, and look forward to returning there. Anywhere I can see my frilled nudibranchs or basket stars (!!!!) is a happy place for me.

Dive date: 4 September 2011

Air temperature: 15 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 32.9 metres

Visibility: 5 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes

Dive sites (Malta): P29 (part 2)

Tony inside the hold
Tony inside the hold

We did two dives on the P29, one with Sergey and a group of Russian divers, and one with Publio and two Maltese divers (Stephanie and Joseph) who now live in Ipswich, where the water pressure is apparently quite good!

The bridge of the P29
The bridge of the P29

The visibility we experienced during the four dives (the other two were on the Rozi) we did at Cirkewwa was the best of all the locations we dived around Malta, showing off the wrecks there to their best advantage. The light penetrates sufficiently that posodonia grows right down to 30 metres.

Tony checks out the superstructure of the P29
Tony checks out the superstructure of the P29

The hatches and doors on the vessel were removed before it was scuttled, and penetration of the wreck is possible. We did not go into any overhead environments, but dropped down into one of the holds which is open to the sea (and as cold as a refrigerator). We also stuck our heads into lots of dark places!

Looking up inside the large open hold
Looking up inside the large open hold
Lots to see inside the hold
Lots to see inside the hold

The P29 is not actually that large (53 metres long, 7 metres wide), but somehow seems quite imposing as it stands on the sand. Its relatively small size meant that we could explore it entirely in a single dive. When we took a tour of the Grand Harbour in Valetta, we were able to see some of the other patrol boats that the Maltese Armed Forces use to police their territorial waters.

The P61 in the Grand Harbour at Valletta
The P61 in the Grand Harbour at Valletta

Dive date: 6 August 2011

Air temperature: 31 degrees

Water temperature: 19 degrees

Maximum depth: 30.5 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 50 minutes

Tony checks out the innards of the P29
Tony checks out the innards of the P29

Dive sites (Malta): P29 (part 1)

Tony at the bow of the P29
Tony at the bow of the P29

The P29 is a Kondor Class former Minesweeper for the East German Navy, and was later a Patrol Boat for the Armed Forces of Malta. The P29 is 52 metres long and 7 metres wide, with a 2.3 metre draft. She was powered by twin diesel engines, had a maximum speed of 20 knots, a crew of 20, and weighed 361 tons.

The scuttling of the P29 was spearheaded by the Malta Marine Foundation, as an artificial reef and as an attraction for recreational diving. She was scuttled in August 2007 just off Cirkewwa. She is located close to the tugboat Rozi, 170 metres offshore, and the same entry point works for both wrecks. She sits upright on the sand at 33-35 metres. The top of her mast is at about 14 metres, with the top of the bridge at about 20 metres.

A mast rising next to the bridge
A mast rising next to the bridge

Before scuttling, the P29 was cleaned, and all doors and hatches were removed. Penetration is safe – there is no silt, and the entrances are evident. The clarity of the water means that finding the source of natural light is relatively straightforward.

The entry is via Susie’s Pool, which we used when diving the Rozi.

Divers setting off down the wall to the sand
Divers setting off down the wall to the sand

Dive date: 2 August 2011

Air temperature: 31 degrees

Water temperature: 23 degrees

Maximum depth: 31.9 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 48 minutes

Exploring: Hout Bay Harbour

The parking area at Hout Bay slipway, seen from the NSRI Station 8 building
The parking area at Hout Bay slipway, seen from the NSRI Station 8 building

Tony and I have wanted to dive Hout Bay harbour almost since he came to Cape Town two years ago. It always looks so clean and inviting as we chug out on the boat for a dive around the corner, and it has seals – lots of them! Also, no one dives there. We were thus very much looking forward to the cleanup dive organised by OMSAC on International Coastal Cleanup Day. Instead of us having to track down the harbour master and get permission to take a dip in his private lake, OMSAC did it for us. And we had a task, too – collecting garbage from the sea floor – which was pretty cool.

Bernita in action
Bernita in action

We entered the water off the floating jetty in the marina (marked no entry except for yacht and boat owners), on the left of the NSRI building and the adjacent bar/restaurant. We would swim under the jetty, and exit the water at the slipway where the dive boats and poacher boats launch. Some of the divers managed giant strides; I did not. I was wearing a very buoyant second wetsuit, and was wearing more weight than I’ve ever used since my Open Water course. (I am ashamed to admit how much.) So when I sat down on the edge of the jetty to put on my fins, there was no getting up again, and I used the “faceplant” entry method. You won’t find that one in your PADI manual.

Much of the harbour floor looks like this
Much of the harbour floor looks like this

The divers were in groups of 10-12, and each of us had a coloured tag on our BCD – red, blue, green, yellow, white, etc – which was about the size of a credit card. Tony, Goot, Bernita, Corne and I were on the green team, and once our team leader and the rest of the group had hit the water, we descended. To say that Bernita and I lost everyone else instantly would be something of an understatement – the visibility was measurable in centimetres, and there was no way we were going to be able to identify other members of our team without a TSA-style full-body pat down to locate their colour tag.

An anchor on the harbour floor
An anchor on the harbour floor

No matter – the two of us completed a half hour dive, and retrieved a full bag of rubbish including a strip of rugby sock, a mysterious pink leather cuff-like object, some fishing line, some wire, and a LOT of plastic bags. I found a beer bottle at the end of the dive, and staggered up the slipway carrying it and my excessive (and, it turned out, insufficiently heavy) weight belt, probably looking as though I’d been partaking of some Castle Lager while submerged.

Bernita showing off a stripy sock that we found
Bernita showing off a stripy sock that we found

Bernita and I swam holding hands a lot of the time so as not to lose one another (like children lost in a forest), with our free hands stretched out in front of us. Sometimes we could see the outstretched hands – other times, our arms disappeared before us into a cloud of silt. We tried to swim away from other divers as much as possible, because the vigorous cleanup activity (and, no doubt, some inexpert finning) stirred up clouds of thick white silt. In the clear patches, visibility was probably about 5 metres, which we found a great relief.

A shore crab in combat mode
A shore crab in combat mode

The water is shallow, no more than four metres deep, and the bottom of the harbour has areas covered in sea lettuce, which moves uncomfortably beneath one as you swim over it, and sandy areas overrun with several kinds of crabs. There are klipfish, tiny barehead gobies, and clouds of tiny fish fry that swarm around one. It’s also very silty, and in some places the bottom seems to boil and steam when you move over it – a layer of fine dust and sand hovers just above the harbour floor, waiting for a careless move to stir it up into the water column.

Tiny box jellyfish
Tiny box jellyfish

This isn’t a site you’ll want to put on your list of “must-dive locations”, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be allowed to dive the area without special permission. But I’m delighted that we had an opportunity to check it out… Both Tony and I love to visit working harbours and marinas, and this was a different perspective on a very familiar place.

Swarms of fish fry in the harbour
Swarms of fish fry in the harbour

There were some intermittent reservations prior to the event about the water quality in the harbour, but it was fine, and the only people who got oiled up were those who retrieved parts of diesel engines and pool pumps. (Everyone seems to be experiencing good – unchanged, that is – digestive health after the event too!)

Eat my dust!
Eat my dust!

Dive date: 17 September 2011

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 3.8 metres

Visibility: 50 centimetres

Dive duration: 31 minutes

Sponge on the harbour floor
Sponge on the harbour floor

Dive sites (Malta): The Blue Hole (Gozo)

The Blue Hole on Gozo
The Blue Hole on Gozo

The Blue Hole is a sinkhole or collapsed cavern in the limestone at Dwerja near San Lawrenz, on Gozo, one of the three islands that make up Malta. It’s about 10 by 5 metres, and the entry point is reached via a slightly rough (but not too bad) walk over the rocks. There are stairs and handrails in places, as this is a spot heavily frequented by tourists and divers. A shallow pool with quite a knobbly bottom surrounds the Blue Hole on the landward side, and we staggered across that and flopped into the Hole itself to put on our fins.

Descending into the Blue Hole is magical – almost as soon as you submerge, an arch stretches across before you, opening the side of the Blue Hole out to the open ocean. The view is spectacular whichever way you look. We spent some time admiring the sunlight filtering down into the hole, and then swam under the arch and out into the open sea.

The dive was through what we by then recognised as typical Maltese limestone reefs, with eel grass, posodonia, and a host of sponges and sea plants covering boulders and valleys that resemble a terrestrial landscape. The highlight of this dive (and perhaps of the trip) was encountering a bluefin tuna, who spent nearly half an hour following us and swimming into our faces. I felt so moved that I became annoyed with the confined feeling I was suddenly experiencing in my mask and regulator – I wanted to share this with someone, discuss it, laugh at how he made munching movements with his mouth every time he came near us, and lament at how lonely he seemed.

The Azure Window on Gozo
The Azure Window on Gozo

Next to the Blue Hole is the Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa in Maltese). It is a natural flat-topped arch, about 23 metres high. The arch is apparently slowly disintegrating, with pieces of limestone frequently falling from it. It is expected that in a few years the arch will be gone, and we will be left with the Azure Pinnacle. We swam back under the Azure Window at the end of our dive. I must admit I didn’t realise we were doing that at the time! It’s a spectacular piece of scenery.

Negotiating a narrow swim through
Negotiating a narrow swim through

At the base of the Blue Hole is a dark cave, which we briefly explored (we were a bit low on air so neither of us wanted to go too far in). There are convenient ledges and lots to look at around the five metre mark to do a safety stop. We were entertained by watching snorkelers from beneath, and other divers outside the arch leading to the open sea, as we degassed.

Divers on the surface of the Blue Hole, seen from inside the cave at the bottom
Divers on the surface of the Blue Hole, seen from inside the cave at the bottom

Dive date: 4 August 2011

Air temperature: 32 degrees

Water temperature: 23 degrees

Maximum depth: 27.2 metres

Visibility: 35 metres

Dive duration: 50 minutes

Tony swims through a gully
Tony swims through a gully

Dive sites: Roman’s Rest

Tony swims over the rocky bottom
Tony swims over the rocky bottom

Roman Rock lighthouse stands near the entrance to the navy harbour in Simon’s Town. In its general (I use the term very loosely) vicinity one finds – amongst other sites – Tivoli Pinnacles, Castor Rock, Wonder Reef, Rambler Rock, and, of course, the Roman Rock reef system, which is right under and around the lighthouse. Grant didn’t drop the shot line right at the lighthouse as one would to dive Roman Rock itself, but at a set of pinnacles called Roman’s Rest which are at the eastern end of the Castor Rock reef complex. Wonder Reef is at the western end.

A flagellar sea fan swaying in the surge
A flagellar sea fan swaying in the surge

Tami and I agreed that this was one of the most beautiful dive sites we’ve visited in False Bay – it’s comprised mostly of large granite boulders and huge flat, sloping rocks that are rich with invertebrate life. The whole area is populated by various types of sea fan, giving the effect of an underwater forest.

Flagellar sea fan
Flagellar sea fan
Lots of cauliflower soft coral on top of the reef
Lots of cauliflower soft coral on top of the reef

I was a bit cold (it was the second dive I did that day, and I had not put on enough layers of wetsuit to compensate for the freezing boat rides to and from the sites!) so I didn’t manage any half-decent photos of fish. But we saw Roman (of course!), and a large school of hottentot or other nondescript silver fish hanging in midwater over the reef. There were many nudibranchs – contrary to our usual experience of seeing one at a time, we saw several that were often so close together that I could include them all in one photo.

Sea fans stand like small outcrops of trees over the reef
Sea fans stand like small outcrops of trees over the reef

The part of Roman Rock that we dived is a newish area, I think, that Peter Southwood is busy mapping for the Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay wikivoyage site. It’s a very, very special site – highly recommended. With the right equipment and good visibility, lovely wide-angle photographs can be possible.

A six-legged granular sea star
A six-legged granular sea star

There are a couple more pictures from this dive in the newsletter Tony put out in the week after we dived the site. The surface conditions were horrible but you can see that the visibility was very good indeed (by False Bay standards!).

Dive date: 27 August 2011

Air temperature: 19 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.4 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 42 minutes

Floating egg ribbon (?) at the safety stop
Floating egg ribbon (?) at the safety stop

Dive sites: SAS Pietermaritzburg

Mast of the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Mast of the SAS Pietermaritzburg

I’ve dived the SAS Pietermaritzburg once before, as part of the Wreck Specialty course I did along with Tami and Kate. The water then was distinctly green, and I was armed with a slate trying to draw a plan of the vessel. My other hand was trying to take photographs of nudibranchs. I didn’t perform either task particularly well.

Tony and I dived the Pietermaritzburg again on 9 July, as part of the OMSAC Treasure Hunt. We were on the Dive Action boat, and they dropped anchor on the wreck so the boat was over us throughout the dive. While I’m not sure about dropping shotlines and anchoring directly on wrecks, it’s universally practiced in Cape Town and does give a sense of security when one surfaces (assuming you’ve managed to stay on the dive site!).

Tilted at a vertiginous angle
Tilted at a vertiginous angle

The Pietermaritzburg was scuttled in 1994. She’s an old minesweeper, and actually participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy as the lead minesweeping vessel. Having this little piece of history right in False Bay is quite awe-inspiring, particularly to someone like me who gets quite weepy (literally) if you mention the war. She was sold to the SA Navy in 1947, and was used as a training vessel and minesweeper until the mid-1960’s.

One of the cuttlefish we found next to the wreck
One of the cuttlefish we found next to the wreck

Located a very short distance (less than 1 kilometre) from the slipway at Miller’s Point, the SAS Pietermaritzburg is in quite an exposed position in the bay and as a result looks as bad or worse than the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks. The vessel is resting on its keel with a very pronounced tilt to one side (it was originally sitting upright, but storm damage has caused large portions of the vessel to collapse). The decks have mostly buckled and tilted, making for some vertiginous angles and possible head-bumping scenarios for the unwary photographer (i.e. me). The wreck used to be suitable for penetration, but it’s far too unstable and fallen in on itself now.

The kitchen sinks
The kitchen sinks

The hawse-holes are clearly visible, as well as several hatches. Tony found a toilet, and I located three very respectable looking kitchen sinks. Some kind of pressure vessel (looks like a boiler, but I don’t think it is and for once Tony isn’t sure either!) pushed up through the deck when the decking subsided. There’s also a very large anchor winch on the foredeck which is a cool shape – I kept coming back to look at it.

Pressure vessel belowdecks
Pressure vessel belowdecks
Orange gas flame nudibranch
Orange gas flame nudibranch

Last time I dived this wreck I was knee deep in gas-flame nudibranchs; this time I saw only one, but spotted a large number of shy little klipfish, curled up unobtrusively among the encrustations on the wreck (lots and lots of urchins and sea cucumbers). Tony found three cuttlefish, all napping together – what beautiful creatures! There are some interesting bits of the wreck that have fallen off onto the sand on the port side, and I found these to be more colourful than much of the rest of the vessel.

Beautiful resting cuttlefish next to the wreck
Beautiful resting cuttlefish next to the wreck

Visibility on this site is rarely much to write home about because of its exposed position, and we were extremely fortunate to have about 10 metres horizontal visiblity when we dived it – even after a week of southeasterly breezes.

Looking across the top of the SAS Pietermaritzburg's deck
Looking across the top of the SAS Pietermaritzburg's deck

Dive date: 9 July 2011

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.2 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 43 minutes

Walking anemone engaged in eating its favourite food (multicoloured sea fan)
Walking anemone engaged in eating its favourite food (multicoloured sea fan)

Dive sites (Malta): Imperial Eagle

Of the ten dives we did in Malta, two were boat dives, done consecutively on one of the days. Our diving companions were all Russian, which meant that Sergey gave us our own personal dive briefing in English, and then switched to more stentorian tones to deliver the Russian version, with the assistance of Peter G. Lemon’s Malta diving book. The first of our boat dives, which were done in such style and comfort that we did not want the day to end, was to the Imperial Eagle, a small ferry that was deliberately scuttled as a diver attraction.

The ship's wheel is still in place
The ship’s wheel is still in place

The Imperial Eagle is 45 metres long, 9.2 metres wide, and was 257 tons, powered by two oil engines. She was first launched in 1938 in England. The Imperial Eagle was a car and passenger ferry that could accommodate 70 passengers and 10 cars. Her maiden voyage between Malta and Gozo was in 1958, and she continued on this route for ten years. Afterwards she was used to transport cargo and animals between Gozo and Valletta.

The bow of the Imperial Eagle
The bow of the Imperial Eagle

In 1995 she was sold to the local diving community, and was scuttled 500 metres off Qawra Point in 40 metres of water on 19 July 1999. The intention was that the vessel would form the main attraction in an underwater marine park. The vessel is colonised by large numbers of fish, who take shelter around it rather than trying to hide in the exposed, crystal clear waters around the ship.

Divers on the surface after dropping into the water
Divers on the surface after dropping into the water

We dived the Imperial Eagle off a traditional Maltese boat called a luzzu.Boat diving in Malta is done off a variety of vessels (basically, anything that floats!) but we were very charmed with the colourful hull and spacious accommodations of our boat for the day. Entry into the water was via a giant stride, and to exit one removes one’s fins and climbs up a small ladder on the side of the boat. The boat moves very slowly, and our surface interval was spent driving to L’Ahrax Point, location of our second dive that day.

A traditional Maltese boat, used as a dive boat
A traditional Maltese boat, used as a dive boat

There is a permanent buoy close to the wreck’s location, and on the way to the wreck one swims past the statue of Christ, located in a natural stone amphitheatre. The wreck is quite deep, and we did notice a distinct set of thermoclines as we descended. Since the coldest of these took us to a water temperature that is more or less the warmest we usually experience in Cape Town (and that usually coupled with Pronutro visibility), we weren’t fussed. Nitrox is an advantage on this site, and we used 32%. The wreck is of a very manageable size to see in a single dive, and is fairly intact but showing signs of her age.

Dive date: 3 August 2011

Air temperature: 31 degrees

Water temperature: 18 degrees

Maximum depth: 37.0 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

The passenger area of the ferry
The passenger area of the ferry